SALEM, Ohio – The Birney family drove from Ohio to Texas five years ago, a cattle trailer in tow, a glum look on their faces and a sinking feeling in their hearts.
Although the Birneys had managed a beef and horse farm in Tallmadge, Ohio, for more than a decade, the owners had called it quits. The fields would soon be a housing development, the barns turned into a golf course and the Birneys’ home paved into a parking lot.
As they drove west, the roads flattened, the space between houses stretched and the family picked up paper after paper.
This was likely their last show and they might as well try to find new jobs.
When they returned to Mindale Farms, it was with silent resignation. According to the books, it wasn’t their farm. There was nothing they could do.
But while they were away, someone else was busy.
Peace and space. Trina Carter’s grandfather, Van, watched the destruction of the Italian land and people while he was stationed in Italy during World War II. When he got back to the States, he just wanted some peace.
And some space to unwind.
Van started working in the lumber business, and gradually bought what land he could afford, eventually amassing hundreds and hundreds of acres and raising Black Angus cattle.
Although he owned the farm with his wife, Minni, Van was more of a businessman than a traditional farmer in overalls and manure-caked boots.
He hired help for the farm, but what he really needed was a take-charge manager.
One day a young man showed up for an interview. He was from a 700-head commercial cattle operation in Harrison County. He had a couple of brothers and there wasn’t room for all of them to run the family farm.
So the young man arrived at Mindale Farms, got the official tour and even went to lunch with Van and the hired hands.
Then in front of the whole crew, Van asked the young man point-blank, “So, what did you think?”
The young man fumbled for words. It was a nice-looking farm and the folks were friendly, but he was less than impressed with the cattle quality.
“Sell all the cows and start over,” he answered honestly, knowing he was as good as gone.
Van turned away, toward his other workers. “Hire him. He’s the only one who tells the truth.”
This was 18 years ago and the young man was Donald Birney.
Time to go. But soon, Van got sick and realized his days were numbered. He turned the farm over to his company, Carter Lumber.
Donald Birney stayed on and did what he’d come to do. He sold the cattle, started out fresh and worked to build a quality breeding herd.
As the years went by, not everyone was as dedicated to farming as Donald and his wife, Dawn.
It was merely a side business to the lumber company based in Kent, Ohio, and Donald had to continuously downsize.
While the Birneys worked, condo communities poured their foundations closer and closer to the farm. Sitting on the outskirts of Akron and just miles away from a busy mall, the farmland soon became a prime candidate for development bids.
Finally, the official word came: Mindale Farms was being sold.
And this is what the Birneys were coming home to after their final Texas show five years ago.
‘Devastation.’ While the Birneys were away, Trina Carter got wind of the plans her relatives at Carter Lumber had for the 900-acre family farm.
Trina and her grandmother Minni were “devastated.” Van had worked so hard and wanted this farm so bad. They couldn’t bear to see it go.
Trina and her relatives negotiated, came up with a business plan, and by the time the Birneys returned from Texas, they had “their” farm back.
Unusual match. Manager Donald Birney and owner Trina Carter make an unlikely pair: Donald, a farmer every moment of his entire life, and Trina, an attorney in Akron.
Donald in his Carhartt jacket, heavy barn boots and cow magnets on his gear shift. Trina in a professional black skirt, pumps, hose and asking how he uses those magnets.
Although their “partnership” is only a few years old, it’s been in the making for 18 years, ever since Donald and Dawn Birney came to the farm when Trina was just a teen.
Dawn taught Trina to drive, and Trina taught Dawn politics. They hug each other when they visit, they talk about the horses by name, they see each other for the holidays.
It’s this partnership that keeps the farm together. More than just associates in a business venture, Trina and the Birneys consider each other family.
Although it may be different, it works. Their proof of success fills the barns and fields. It covers the walls of the office. It’s in sale bills and show results.
Nationally known. Five years ago when the farm was about to be sold, the Birneys say it was in “shutdown mode.” Now, it’s a nationally recognized breeding farm.
With about 100 head of cattle and a dozen mares, the Birneys aren’t interested in expanding – just improving.
The focus is quality of animals, not quantity. The beef cattle and Standardbred pacers have plenty of fields to roam and one-on-one attention.
The Birneys’ aggressive breeding program and embryo transfers are paying off.
Last year, a mare Dawn raised broke the track record at The Meadows in Pennsylvania, and they also had the Mature Pacer of the Year through the U.S. Trotting Association. They’re invited to sell their yearlings at the Kentucky Standardbred sale every year.
In addition, MIN Lady, a fullblood Maine-Anjou, won this year’s national Fort Worth Stock Show.
Donald and Dawn’s son, Jon, 21, is the showman in the family. He hauls the cattle all over the country, fitting and showing them.
Teddy Bear. Another source of pride is Teddy Bear, a heavy-boned, muscular purebred Shorthorn that the Birneys say defies the traditional genetics of its breed.
“[At a recent show] we couldn’t get the semen out of him fast enough,” Donald laughed.
Sale’s comeback. While the recent years have been filled with genetics and showing milestones, there was another big moment. The Birneys felt their program was finally to the point where they could start an annual sale.
Their first sale in more than a decade was in November.
In the weeks leading up to the sale, people from across the country called for information. A man from Oklahoma came to town specifically for the sale. Mindale Farms’ Web site took in 682 hits the week of the sale.
Finally the day arrived, and 61 breeding lots totaled $117,425.
Not bad, they say, for a farm on its way out just five years ago.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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* Mindale Farms Co.
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